MINNEAPOLIS – You would have thought it was a halftime speech the way three NFL players soaked in everything Onika Goodluck had to say.
Vikings teammates Eric Kendricks and Harrison Phillips joined Saints linebacker Demario Davis Monday afternoon at All Square, a craft grilled cheese restaurant that also exists as a professional development institute and blossoming civil rights law firm.
Kendricks is a long-time friend and supporter of All Square. In 2018, Kendricks first heard about All Square and its Fellow & Fellow Alum Fund, which supports formerly incarcerated individuals in their efforts to rejoin society. He now consistently supports the program's mission and invites his peers to follow suit.
Monday marked the first visit for Phillips, who recently joined the Vikings as a free agent, and Davis, shares a heart for making an impact off the field.
The two "newbies" heard from Goodluck, who was part of All Square's very first fellow class in 2018; the single mother of three boys has since stayed on with the organization and currently serves as the Mobility Director.
Vikings LB Eric Kendricks and DT Harrison Phillips joined Saints LB Demario Davis at All Square, a craft grilled cheese restaurant, that also exists as a professional development institute and civil rights law firm.
Goodluck shared her personal story of repeat incarceration from a young age and hopelessness of breaking the cycle and caring for herself and her infant son.
"I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
But at the suggestion of her probation officer – whom Goodluck said showed incredible empathy – Goodluck applied and was accepted to the All Square fellowship program. Not only did All Square employ Goodluck at the restaurant, but she and all other fellows since have participated in career programming and regular therapy and mental health care.
Phillips and Davis were all ears, asking several insightful questions of Goodluck and Emily Hunt Turner, the founder and CEO of All Square.
Goodluck has seen Kendricks' passion for the program first-hand on multiple occasions. She sincerely appreciated the eagerness of Davis and Phillips to learn about and support All Square's mission.
"Ever since I met Eric, he's been amazing. It just gets better every time he comes. I'm always holding my breath, like, 'What does he have up his sleeve this time that's going to change the game?' " smiled Goodluck, who through All Square has launched her own catering business, O’s Kitchen. "I mean, his last gift – I was able to get a catering van and help catapult my business. Being able to transport all that food in the right way is important, and it helps.
"The mission is so special and unique to me, obviously, because I've lived it," she continued. "So having other people that haven't shared the same experience be interested and want to know what they can do to help is a gift that keeps giving."
Goodluck said the players' genuine interest demonstrates the character of all three. It seems only fitting that Kendricks (Vikings), Phillips (Bills) and Davis (Saints) have been nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
"It goes beyond the surface. That's what it says to me," Goodluck said. "This is really their passion; they really care. I feel like that's always refreshing, because you don't have to. Everybody has their life and whatever they have going on and can get wrapped up in that pretty easily. Seeing a need and trying to meet that need is amazing."
Since signing with Minnesota, Phillips has already dedicated numerous hours to his new home.
The 26-year-old has already visited two Twin Cities children's hospitals and a middle school's special education program, and he plans to keep making positive impacts in the community.
"I came fairly wet behind the ears. I had no idea what was going on here, and I'm really blown away," Phillips said of All Square. "I think the social impact here is incredibly deep, and I'm excited to continue learning more about it.
"Hearing Onika's story, hearing what this has done for her and her family, it's definitely inspiring," he added. "I can't wait to see the growth that they have here."
Davis jumped at the opportunity to learn more about All Square after spending time just down the street at the Little Earth Urban Farm. Davis is active in the subsidized housing complex through, a foundation he started along with NFL peers Josh Norman and Drew Brees. SHIELD 1's mission is to sustain humanity through economic and legislative development.
He explained how one event that spurred the foundation's work was the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
"They just kept sending water trucks to Flint," Davis recalled, "but no one was working to fix the root problem."
SHIELD 1 is now active in Minneapolis; New Orleans; Buffalo, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta, Georgia. The nonprofit has been supported by the Vikings Social Justice Committee, which is player-led and backed by Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf.
"Our vision is helping be a catalyst for change there; and being a catalyst for change in Little Earth will be a catalyst for change in Minneapolis. … To create a project that the community can be proud of but also a project that can scale to multiple locations," Davis explained. "There's a food desert here, so people are forced to eat food that's not good for their bodies … you have to give them access to higher-quality food that they can afford. And how do you do that better? Create solutions that live within the community. They are finding that."
Currently, the Little Earth community operates a 200-square-foot urban garden.
"But the vision that we have is to build a 20,000-square-foot facility that lives inside the community," Davis said. "That's on the way. We've got to get everything lined up. We've got to get a few things handled from the permit standpoint, and once we get that, I think the community can thrive in a major way.
"It's been really good to see the community continue to find ways to uplift themselves," he added. "It's just exciting to work alongside them."
Kendricks appreciated the opportunity to discuss the impacts and ideations of All Square and SHIELD 1 over a lunch of crispy fries and three different types of grilled cheese sandwiches.
"It's just about collaboration; the more minds, the better. … We had a roundtable discussion today, and there were questions, there were answers, there was discussion. That's really what it's all about," Kendricks said. "I don't really have a plan, a formula, going into these things. It's just about a bunch of people trying to do good work – and usually the best things come from those kinds of collaborations.
"Obviously there's so many issues in this world that everybody's trying to tackle," Kendricks continued. "You can't think that one individual problem can be solved alone or independently. It takes a group to – whether it's bringing awareness by using each other's platforms or getting an idea by how something else is done. These are similar issues with different types of solutions. It only makes sense to collaborate."
Davis, who is entering his 11th NFL season, echoed Kendricks' sentiments.
"We have platforms where we're able to partner together and bring our minds together and our hearts together," Davis said. "Being here at All Square and getting a chance to hear what they're doing in the criminal justice reform space, it's another piece of that ecosystem that we need – another piece of the puzzle that we need to bring together."
During lunch, Davis and Turner already were discussing ways All Square could potentially support and work with SHIELD 1's efforts in Little Earth.
"Finding ways that these groups can work together – Little Earth, All Square – when there's different needs to help different people, there are ways that we can partner to alleviate the burden that may exist in a space," Davis said.
Kendricks, Phillips and Davis play for opposing NFC teams. It goes without saying, the Vikings and the Saints have some history between the organizations.
But there are many things bigger than football.
"Obviously fans want to pit people against each other and, yeah, in between the whistles there's some beef. We're fightin' and grinding," Phillips said. "But when you're off the field, most of us … understand that our community impact and what we can do off the field is much more important than what jersey we're wearing at that time."
Davis expressed similar sentiments.
"In a lot of ways, what we do on the field is entertainment; we get a chance to go put on one of the greatest shows on earth. But at the end of the day, we come back together," Davis said.
When the Vikings and Saints face each other during the upcoming regular season, there's sure to be some banter between the teams.
"Oh, yeah. When it's game time, we're gonna talk," Davis laughed. "Ain't no friends on the field. But after it's over? It's all family.
"Everybody's a part of the NFL. It's a community. Being able to work with your family in different locations and work on different things is really special," he added. "Having guys like Eric and Harrison, and other guys on the Vikings, but also having the Vikings organization behind us, the owners – The Wilfs – having [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell and the NFL behind us, it's really a beautiful thing."